Whether you consider the 1959 Cadillac a zeitgeist or stereotype on wheels; you’re right. No other car sums up the last theatrical breath of the middle decade of the last century to so many eyes like the cream crop cars from General Motors that paraded their proud feathers worldwide starting in the fall of 1958.
What they held, what they hid, was confidence and charisma in the absolutely ordinary. Beyond the wildness that might have been expected, they didn’t take as much of a risk as rivals that survived the decade did.
There’s a few points to remember about the 1959 Cadillacs. Like Douglass Sirk’s melodramatic classic, they were an absolute Imitation of Life. Had it not been for the feathers on the tails of 1957 Forward Look Mopars, the 1959 Cadillac would have been an even more beastly, baroque and overchromed version of what had been offered for 1957-58.
Notably a girdle was fastened to the center of the design, giving that longed for lower, leaner, wider look to stay abreast of the competition. For all of the renown use of chrome, the 1959 Cadillac, like a number of more expensive GM products that year, only lavished extreme trim on the face and the fanny, leaving chrome lines to highlight details down the center rather than call attention to themselves.
What’s oft not talked about or realized is how much in common a 1959 Cadillac shares in basic body shell with the most common of 1959 Chevrolets (and all General Motors cars except the Corvette). That 4 window roofline that has that huge patio shade overhang could be found as a Bel-Air or Impala Sports sedan as well.
The slope from the beltline at the front doors allowed cost cutting door sharing for all GM cars, dictated by the most desperate for change designers in the Buick studios.
The drastic change-over, requiring Cadillac dump its traditionally separate “C” body to stay in the game. This removed a few prestige points from the traditional Standard of The World all the while maximizing profits.
1959 Cadillacs begot where Cadillac would go with the 1976 Seville, and woefully, the 1982 Cimmaron. But, in the dazzle of fins and protruding lights nose to tail, few could recognize what was supporting the emperor’s robe quite yet.
One could say it was a wise choice. Cadillac had lost money on the bespoke Eldorado Brougham in 1957-58, and would continue to do so on the Pininfarina assembled 1959-60 version. Ford took the one-two punch of offering the unique Continental Mark II, then the Uni-Body 1958-60 Lincolns to lukewarm responses. The then shallow economy didn’t allow for planned “Super Mercury” versions to share their chassis. In addition, their Titanic length and width ranked them as the largest mass production automobiles at the time, those Lincolns made a rather crass statement as vehicular tastes became a bit more modest.
Imperial, while sharing a body with no Chrysler for the 3rd season in a row, had to deal with the tainted reputation stinking up Highland Park from its siblings, while still trying to shake the image of the more Buick Roadmaster competitive identity of “Chrysler-Imperial.” Both direct Detroit rivals were even bigger peacocks that the 1959 Cadillac it seems. It’s hard to imagine such an icon actually being the image of domestic modesty. The 1959 Cadillac as the Doris Day to the Marilyn Monroe Lincoln and the Jayne Mansfield “Chrysler-Imperial.”
Of course, there was the winning formula of restrained craftsmanship inside, predictable sterling performance and surprising economy from the smallest V8 in the domestic luxury field combined with the eldest automatic transmission with the most forward speeds. In a year which luxuries were few and far between, Cadillac remained champion of the luxury field. Fielding just over 142,000 units, it proved to be the 2nd best sales year for the brand for the decade, paving a red carpet for 1960’s success.
Zeitgeist, yes. Stereotype, of the most American. The problem seems that Cadillac forgot that eventually you stop faking it til you make it. Once substance became as important as style, they fell out of fashion. Sometimes it’s best to celebrate icons from a distance rather than heeding their request for a close-up.